Phillip Henderson was only 38 when he took the helm at the Surdna Foundation seven years ago, becoming Surdna’s second director in what he calls its “modern era.” Henderson came to the family foundation from a career that had been focused on international philanthropy, but he applied many of the lessons he learned fostering civic engagement in post-Communist Europe to Surdna’s domestic grantmaking. Henderson sat down with Shelterforce to talk about aligning program with mission, cross-pollination between programs, and Surdna’s recent launch into the impact investing world.
We first met Darren Walker about 15 years ago while planning an issue on faith-based development. Darren was the chief operating officer of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, the storied community development arm of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City. We asked Darren to write an article that was not simply a cheerleader’s promotion of church-based CDCs, but a realistic assessment of the benefits and challenges to an institution embarking on that path.
Darren was optimistic and enthusiastic about the work he was doing at Abyssinian creating hundreds of units of affordable housing in Harlem. But he was pragmatic and realistic also. His article encouraged organizations to temper the enthusiasm necessary to even consider this work with a realistic analysis of an organization’s capacities and a clear-eyed examination of their assumptions about the rewards of creating a CDC.
Darren approached his work enthusiastically, I think, because he had visceral understanding of the challenges low-income folks had and the opportunities that were available to them with the right help. The kind of help that the stability of an affordable home could provide. His understanding came from personal experience that would inform his work wherever it took him, from law school to international finance, from a storefront afterschool program and Abyssinian to the Rockefeller and Ford foundations.
When we sat down with Darren on March 18 to conduct this interview, we were glad to see that enthusiasm, optimism, and pragmatism were as strong as ever as he starts his leadership of one of the world’s largest foundations.
The report was produced with the support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the C.S. Mott Foundation.
Also check out Leila Fiester's complementary report Investing in New Orleans: Lessons for Philanthropy in Public Housing Redevelopment published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.